“We’re picking creators because they’re good. By finding new and different voices, you are automatically being inclusive.”
That’s Joe Illidge, Senior Editor of Lion Forge comics, during a wide-ranging interview at New York Comic Con last weekend. I mentioned Lion Forge briefly in my post about the changes I see coming in geekdom. Lion Forge is poised to be a large part of that change.
Mostly known now for its comics featuring merchandising tie-ins like Transformers, Lion Forge has much bigger plans to live up to its slogan of “comics for everyone!”
Indeed, one the biggest pieces of comic news at New York Comic Con was Lion Forge’s announcement of a new shared superhero universe with serious talent on the various titles. Combine that with their acquisition of Magnetic Press, which includes the all-ages Love: A Tiger graphic novel, and their Roar line for kids, and this is a company set to make serious waves next year.
The kick-off for the new superhero universe will be the one-shot Catalyst Prime One written by Illidge and Christopher Priest and drawn by Margot Turini.
There will be seven titles superhero titles, all set a year after the one-shot story.
Creators on the seven new series include: Joe Casey, Alex De Campi, Janice Chang, Chuck Collins, Amy Chu, Jan Duursema. Ramon Govea, Dr. Sheena Howard, Ken Lashley, Pop Mhan, Jefte Palo, Christopher Priest, John Rauch, Damion Scott, Larry Stroman, Brandon Thomas, Marco Turini, and David F. Walker.
The books will also have Desiree Rodriguez as an editorial assistant.
“We’re combining known talent with talent that needs a wider exposure,” Illidge said. “The formats of the stories will be accessible and delivered in formats that can reach a wide audience.”
Illidge said Lion Forge is reaching out to find all kinds of talent. He’s part of an editorial team that includes Executive Editor Mark Smylie, Mike Kennedy, the Creative Director of Magnetic Collection, and Andrea Colvin, Senior Editor of Roar.
“We are going to showcase a variety of voices,” he said. “At this point, it takes effort, ignorance or intent not to engage creators of different backgrounds.”
Illidge knows from personal experience why having all voices heard is important. Initially, he balked at the idea of an unpaid internship at Milestone Media, the landmark comic company that featured black characters and writers. Illidge said he instead needed a job that could pay the bills. But when he saw an issue of Icon on the newsstands, it hit him that this company was onto something and “I wanted to be a part of history.”
“I was interviewed by Dwayne McDuffie and found out later I didn’t do well on the interview but my friend vouched for me and they gave me a shot.” Later, it became a paying part-time job, and, then a permanent job in the business section, then he transferred over to editorial.
“I feel like the work I’m doing with Lion Forge with is a continuation of the philosophy at Milestone and at DC Comics with Denny O’Neil, and now with Mark Smylie here,” he said. “Our staff reflects our values.”
Illidge’s time at DC included editing Birds of Prey, a comic often cited by many women as their entry point into comics reading.
“I was aware that I had one of the top two bestselling female comics and took that representation seriously,” Illidge said. But it wasn’t just the representation for women but also the representation for the disabled, with the character of Babara (Oracle) Gordon. Illidge was aware of that as well, though not everyone in DC editorial saw how important the character had become as a role model and how much Babs was capable of on the page.
“Birds of Prey was important because it was a top selling female book but even in DC Comics, there were people who didn’t understand why Babs/Oracle could be a physical combatant.” He cited the climax of the “Hunt for Oracle” storyline where Babs in a wheelchair has an action sequence where she defeats a score of villains. The creative team and Illidge knew how much Oracle meant to the disabled community. (Indeed, when DC rebooted with the new 52 and Babs’ injury was retconned as recoverable, there was pushback on the change and that frustration continues to this day. As for me, I miss Oracle.)
Illidge also wanted to do something different with the Catwoman title at DC. This was around the time of the Jim Balent era Catwoman where her physical attributes–i.e. boobs– seemed to be the main point of the book. Illidge proposed the team that wrote the cult favorite Chase to take over Catwoman: J.H. Williams III (now known for Batwoman) and Dan Curtis Johnson.
“It would have been an aesthetically prescient comic. Would have changed the game.” Unfortunately, DC didn’t want Illidge to edit both that and Birds of Prey and he had to choose.
Now, as Senior Editor at Lion Forge, the choices for creative teams and concepts in the superhero universe are up to him.
“We’re not trying to check boxes but trying to give opportunities.”
“My job as editor is working with people to make them the best creators that they can be. Period. Ego has to take a backseat to story.” At some of the larger comic companies, editors are given the talent who will be on their books, rather than being able to choose the talent. And, sometimes, editors keep the writer/artist teams separate from each other on the theory it’s easier to coordinate.
That’s not a method Illidge would ever choose.
“The idea of keeping talent segregated doesn’t serve the books or the creators well. Part of my ethos as an editor is to nurture creativity and relationships. I’m putting my creators in touch with each other so they can combine forces. Together, they can do their best work.” Almost the first thing he did after settling on the new creative teams announced at New York Comic Con was to hold a writer’s retreat. “And the result has been relationships and friendships.”
Illidge also pointed out that while they are actively searching for all kinds of voices, that doesn’t exclude white creators, like Joe Casey, who is writing three of the superhero titles for Lion Forge.
“There is nothing wrong with writing characters outside your own experience,” Illidge said. “But when the model of white creators writing outside their experience becomes the norm, then that’s a problem.”
For those wanting to write characters who aren’t the same color or gender or sexuality or religious background, Illidge had this advice.
“You can’t be lazy in writing outside your experience. As a writer, stay open and observant.You need to do the work to write convincing characters of other cultures.” The most important part of this, Illidge said, is not to go into research with the belief that you already understand someone else’s experience.”
Illidge and Lion Forge have taken on a huge job in creating a new superhero universe. Valiant has had success recently with their superhero universe but it’s not an easy thing to pull in comics readers attached to their regular DC and Marvel characters. CrossGen Comics, which had a connected universe as well, famously failed. (Though perhaps not due to story quality and due more to mismanagement of resources.)
But the Lion Forge universe promises to be something more than the usual superhero universe, pulling in talent from everyone who already loves and reads comics, appealling to every segment of diverse comic readers, and making those products available in multiple formats, especially digitally where it’s easier to reach a wider audience than shops in local comic stores.
I Can’t wait to read their books.